Thursday, September 16, 2004

Patterns of violence in Iraq

I have to shed light on something that has been bothering me for quite some time. Events over the last six months or so seem to indicate a developing pattern of the violence in Iraq. Simply put, when there is a surge of violence in the south, it completely ceases in other areas of Iraq, and vice versa. In other words, whenever Sadr takes a rest, Zarqawi comes into action again.

There were zero suicide attacks during Sadr's revolt last April and May. They resumed when the situation was clear, as did activities of militants in certain Baghdad areas such as the old Karkh (Haifa street, Talayi' square and Khudhr Al-Yass) and Adhamiya. They ceased again all together during the second Sadr uprisal last month, and now they look as if they are just starting again.

It also looks as if it applies to US military actions as well, taking turns at Najaf, Sadr city and Fallujah, but that can probably be attributed to military tactics such as the reluctance to fight on several fronts at the same time. Furthermore, insurgent activities have worryingly spread to areas that are usually peaceful, such as Talafar and Haifa street in Baghdad. Even more confusing is the fact that some areas usually not peaceful (Adhamiya in Baghdad, Hawija), are unusually peaceful now, that is if you disregard the occasional mortar attack.

Most media analysts have classified insurgents in Iraq into three main categories: First, Sunni elements that operate in an area starting from Latifiya south of Bahdad and upwards reaching Mosul, this also includes both the Anbar and the Diyala governorates, west and east of Baghdad, respectively, where insurgent activities are the most intense. This group loosely consists of former regime loyalists, ex-Ba'athists, former army and Mukhabarat officers, Iraqi extremist Salafi groups, and militant tribesmen. Most of these groups act locally and lack coordination with groups in other Sunni areas. They also have different motives behind their actions and each has a different vision of the future Iraq.

Second, foreign fighters who continue to pour into Iraq to join small isolated terrorist cells in several Sunni areas. Most are recruited in neighbouring countries and are given instructions on where to take refuge once inside Iraq. This is the group that is thought to be behind suicide attacks and some of the kidnappings. Their level of cooperation with the first group remains unclear.

Third, Sadr's Al-Mahdi militia, operating in most areas of the south and some neighbourhoods in Baghdad (Sadr city, Al-Sha'ab, Kadhimiya, Al-Shu'la, Al-Hurria, and Al-Bayaa'). This group is the less sophisticated and less professional, but it has the largest numbers.

All three groups have a common enemy at the moment, but each has a different goal in mind. The first two groups watch the actions of the third with growing concern, which I think is the reason they postpone their activities when Al-Mahdi take up arms. It is in their best interest that Sadr is neutralised, otherwise he would prove a powerful adversary in the future.

The most likely scenario in the event of a premature withdrawal of occuppation forces is this: Sadr will move to gain control of the south and most of Baghdad, other Shi'ites will submit by intimidation. The Marji'iya will have no power to intervene unless they are willing to allow a violent civil war between the various Shi'ite factions. Iran is likely to interfere, but perhaps not directly.

At the same time, Sunni elements will move to consolidate their power over their areas. The fundamental foreign and Salafi constituent would be too weak to control any area. Each town would be virtually independent until the strongest (and most ruthless) group can control the Sunni areas north of Baghdad. The Kurdish region would break off the rest of Iraq and the Peshmerga would move to control oil fields in Kirkuk. Later, there would be a bloody confrontation between the different groups until one subjugates the others and controls the country, this would probably take years and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would die, many more would try to leave Iraq.

With this bleak scenario in mind, one can easily interpret the current pattern of violence. I am not saying this is going to happen soon, I'm only trying to understand how the various groups are thinking and how it reflects on their current actions. Of course, I may be wrong, but I am inclined to believe that this explains it. Each group wants to survive the occupation to fight for power in the future.

Conspiracy Theories and the Ummah

I spent the bulk of my time a few days ago closely following the various Arab satellite channels and their extensive coverage on the present state of Islam, global terrorism and the Arab world three years after the earthquake of September 11th.

Not surprisingly, a few channels, such as the Iranian based Al-Alam and Hizbollah's mouthpiece Al-Manar, focused on recycled conspiracy theories that have long been debunked and rubbish speculations unsupported by even the slightest evidence (Al-Alam named its program "9/11, The Hoax Of The Century"). Some of these include the false claim, wildly propagated by the Arab media at the time, that 3,000 New Yorker Jews did not go to work on 9/11, that the Mossad had prior knowledge of the attacks, that the CIA had trained the suicide bombers, that the planes were directed to hit the buildings by ground control, that the Pentagon was not hit by an aircraft, that the Pennsylvania flight was downed by the US Air Force, that there were no Arabs on any of the 4 flights, and the idiotic self-pitiful argument that Arabs simply do not have the required know-how to carry out such a highly coordinated attack. These are only a tiny fraction of the theories given by Arab viewers but, for the sake of brevity, I will not recount them all.

Most Arabs and Muslims are unfortunately unaware that these claims would be laughed at by most people, they also cannot be possibly blamed for such thinking simply because they have been repeatedly fed prepackaged rumours and conspiracy theories as truth throughout their lives by school texts, speeches of immortal Arab leaders, official statements and state-sponspored media. Sociologists call this process 'communal reinforcement' One cannot think for himself when he has the state to think on his behalf. One would even feel 'wrong' and out of place if he disagreed with the prevalent opinion all around him. In time, the Arab individual would be socially conditioned to acquire a comforting herd mentality.

Try to imagine it this way: starting with your early childhood you hear adults around you blaming 'Jews', 'Israel', 'Zionists', 'infidels', 'colonialism', 'imperialism', 'the West' for all the ills of your society. At school you are taught a flowery refined version of Arab and Islamic history. One in which the Ummah was the center of the world. You revel in the glories of your ancestors, their superior military and economic power, their benign tolerance of religious minorities, all the wealth of scientific knowledge they brought to humanity while the west was wallowing in the Dark Ages. You then learn about the conspiracies against the Islamic Empire and its divine message for humanity. Colonialism. How the west came to enslave your countrymen and plunder your riches for centuries. You look around you at the Arab and Islamic world today and you wonder what went wrong. How can such a glorious 'chosen' Ummah suffer such a pathetic fate.

Remember that you are completely blocked from the outside world, you only read newspapers and books allowed by the government, the rest are censored. You only watch state-sponspored tv channels. Websites that are 'unacceptable' are blocked by state-sponspored Internet providers. The government tells you that 'this is for your own good', they protect you from 'the other' which is trying to poison your thoughts, undermine your faith, and destroy your traditions. Your fellow countrymen who inadvertently step over the lines are strictly 'punished' by the state because they have become 'spies' and 'agents'. Anyone else who dares to ask for more liberties, reforms, who criticises or acts against the ruler/government/state is an enemy acting on behalf of Zionists and imperialists, or is part of a grand plan (that has been planned for centuries) against 'the revolution' or the historical role of the ummah/Caliph/Sultan/ruler/government/state.

The above situation is not out of George Orwell's 1984, it is what all Iraqis for the last 50 years had to endure. Arabs and Muslims in other countries suffer from basically the same albeit in different or lesser degrees, but again nobody can really know exactly because the state has all its citizens in a constant state of paranoia. I have faintly sensed it when communicating with other Arabs by email or IM. I had online friends from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Palestine and Egypt reluctant to answer any of my questions regarding their domestic affairs. I remembered my own situation before the war when people asked me about Iraq or Saddam and how I would steer to change the subject or simply end the conversation out of paranoia and fear.

My point is that a significant percentage of Arabs and Muslims (especially the simple minded and the uneducated) are irreversibly affected by this elaborate brainwashing process. Repeated exposure to outlandish theories and nonsensical propaganda propagated by the state, mass media and other members of society strongly engrains them into one's worldview and over time they turn into concrete facts that are almost impossible to let go of, despite their lack of supporting evidence. They become so strong that the person turns a blind eye to any information or evidence that refute his theories. In fact the person may be profoundly astonished that you can't see things the way he does, when his evidence is as clear as the sun in the sky. He might even call you a Zionist or a CIA agent because you would rather think for yourself and refuse to adopt his worldview. He might even go farther and try to harm you or your family physically. Indeed, thousands of individuals across the Arab and Muslim world have been killed for just that.

It should be important to note that the process above is not exclusive to Arabs or Muslims. It can apply to almost any nation, group or society, though perhaps in a lesser degree. What distinguishes us Arabs is that most of us continue to live under repressive totalitarian regimes that owe their existence to such tactics. The recent developments in Lebanon with the constitutional amendment to ensure Lahhud stays in rule are a sad example in practice. The Lebanese people are sold the nonsense that Emil Lahhud is the only qualified politician capable of defending Lebanon against 'foreign designs' and 'Zionism' with his support for the 'resistance' and Syria (despite his poor domestic achievements and the fact that hundreds of thousands of young Lebanese are immigrating to the west). Parliament members who objected to the amendment were conveniently accused of being 'agents'. Another example in Sudan where the government accused Israel of being involved in the Darfur crisis. And last, in Iraq where it seems a Mossad agent is behind every bombing and every assassination, and that Israelis are buying land and building settlements in the Kurdish north. Again, the biased Arab media is to blame for spreading such absurd claims without evidence.

Another thing that distinguishes us Arabs is our rich heritage and the wide gap between what we are in theory and what we are in reality. I mentioned before the flowery version of our history and religion every child of ours is fed since the age of nine. Not one word is mentioned about the violent internal conflicts in early Islam, not one word about the bloody civil war that followed the assassination of the third Caliph Othman which marked the schism in Islam, not one word about all the bloody revolts and assassinations throughout our history, not one word about how Muslims converted the defeated nations and how minorities were treated as slaves or tax paying second-class citizens when they did not convert, not one word about the plight of women under Islam, not one word about all the massacres and atrocities that were committed in the name of Islam in all corners of the world.

When I first started to read other history books written by early Muslim historians such as Al-Baladhiri, Al-Tabari, Ibn Al-Athir and Ibn Khaldun, I seriously thought that I was mistaken and was reading about some nation other than Muslims. A few years later, and after devouring every tiny bit of history written about Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims, I had come to the realisation that I was fooled and duped into believing a totally different picture. In fact, I was even scared of what else I might discover next. With that realisation in mind I moved on to the 'untouchable' scriptures, the Quran and the Hadith, but that is another story. I have digressed enough.

It is worth mentioning that some Arab channels, such as Al-Arabiya and Al-Hurra, had a much more balanced approach. True, they had their share of hosting conspiracy theorists in order to appear 'balanced', but overall they provided moderate discussions. Al-Arabiya, in particular, seems to have recently adopted a more professional tone. They have suddenly ceased to use terms such as 'martyr', 'resistance', 'fedayee operations' (used by Al-Jazeera to describe Palestinian suicide bombings), etc. They abandoned their former biased one-sided view which is of course an encouraging sign. I doubt Al-Jazeera will be following their steps any soon.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

On clerics, fatwas and terrorism

Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, member of the advisory (Shura) council of the Association of Muslim Scholars, recently admitted that the association was considering issuing a fatwa dealing with the practice of kidnapping and executing foreigners, on whether or not it is acceptable under Islamic Sharia. This was in response to an appeal by Al-Jaish Al-Sirri Al-Islami (Islamic Secret Army) to the association in a video displayed on Al-Arabiya last Sunday. The same group had earlier released a Turkish hostage after the Kuwaiti company he worked for announced it would cease to operate in Iraq.

The cleric added that such a fatwa would take some time and would need considerable research and thought which should be done to study the possible benefits of such a fatwa under the present circumstances. It is obvious that according to the twisted mindset of Sheikh Abdul-Sattar and his ilk, a clear fatwa that would help save innocent lives and, most importantly, would serve to give credence to the controversial claim that Islam is a religion of peace is a 'huge task on the Ulemma of the ummah', yet the same clerics are always quite readily prepared to jump on the bandwagon of Jihad and to issue fatwas calling for destruction at every opportunity.

Sheikh Yousif Al-Qardhawi, a much respected cleric in the Arab world based in Qatar and a regular guest on Al-Jazeera, recently stated that it is acceptable to fight the Americans in Iraq. Al-Qardhawi is also known for his open support of Palestinian suicide bombers against Israeli civilians, labelling them as 'legitimate resistance fighters', and also for his support of Chechnian terrorists and the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, like Al-Jazeera, he has not uttered one word about the US presence in Qatar, where he resides, which would indicate that either the ruling family of Qatar decides what he can say and what he cannot, or that he is a lowly hypocrite as are most Arab state-sponsored clerics. Qardhawi should mind his own business and keep his filthy hands off Iraqi issues. As the commentor on the new Al-Fayhaa station sarcastically put it: "Qardhawi might be able to cite verses from the Quran that incite violence and destruction, but can he show us some Quranic verses that would help rebuild Iraq or pay off its billions of dollars in debts?"

One Iraqi Islamic group did issue a related fatwa a few days ago, yet it did not address hostage taking and executions in general, it was specific to the case of the two French journalists. A Sheikh Al-Sumaida'i (whom I have never heard of before) of the Sunni Supreme Association of Ifta' (self-described as a Salafi group) stated that the association had issued a fatwa demanding the release of the two journalists. Why the association did not deem it neccessary to apply the fatwa to the whole practice of kidnapping civilians is yet another example of Islamic clerics refusing to redeem themselves. I wonder what those clerics would say if Arabs in foreign countries start getting kidnapped because of the actions of their countrymen or their governments.

This also applies to the recent kidnapping of two Italian humanitarian workers with two Iraqis from their office in Baghdad. Apparently, humanitarian NGO's, as journalists and UN employees before them, had considered themselves invincible even though events during the last 17 months have proven otherwise. Sadly, it has become crystal clear that NO ONE is safe in Iraq today.

The only cleric that appeared at the NGO's office to condemn the kidnapping in front of cameras was a young Sheikh Khatib Younis, he addressed the kidnappers:

"If you are claiming that you are resisting occupying forces or defending Iraq or Islam, then you should remember that the two Italian hostages you are holding have been operating in Iraq since the early nineties and that they were against the war and the suffering of Iraqis. They were here to help Iraqis. Iraqi children's schools have been built or reconstructed by their efforts, hungry and homeless Iraqis have been fed and sheltered, clinics and medical centres have been supplied with medicine. You should know that you are fighting all of those and that you are not achieving whatever you are claiming to."

It appears that the rest are still busy studying and researching whether it is Islamic or not to speak out against the act, it is a significant burden on the Ulemma indeed.

Still, I doubt that the motives of the anonymous kidnappers in this case are political. The kidnappers would probably say they are but it looks, until now, that they are mainly after ransom, as in some previous cases. It is also probable that the money might be used to finance future terrorist activities or that it may not. Perhaps all the various Islamic groups have just found it more profitable and worthwhile to kidnap foreigners for ransom, this could explain why more and more civilians that have nothing to do with the conflict in Iraq are being targeted. Targets such as female humanitarian workers, unguarded neutral journalists or impoverished foreigners seeking employment are more likely to gain worldwide sympathy and support because they are supposed to be immune and innocent. Hence, the countries or parties in charge are more likely to pay the ransom under significant pressure.

One Kuwaiti company is said to have payed kidnappers 500 thousand dollars in return for the release of some of their employees (I think it was the case of the Kenyan and Egyptian drivers). It is also rumoured that the government of the Phillipines have payed at least a million for one of their hostages. Mediators such as the Association of Muslim Scholars and tribal chiefs have been accused by many of recieving 'commissions' from both sides. It is, quite simply, a lucrative business. You don't even need labour or capital. All you need is a couple of AK-47's and a video camera. This could be just the beginning of Iraqi organised crime.

***

Waiting for clerics and leaders of Islam to condemn violence might take forever. The reason is that there is no ONE Islam that all Muslims today adhere to. There is a multitude of sects, cults and groups that constitute what we call Islam, the followers of which can range from tens of millions to a few thousands. Even within the same sect there can be fundamental differences in interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith. Rival clerics from the same sect can hold highly contradicting opinions on a matter as simple as washing yourself before prayers.

Muslim jurists over the last 14 centuries have gone into every small detail of life that one could imagine without ever attempting to address the fundamental or controversial differences. Hundreds of thick volumes have been written about what is najis (filthy) and what is not, which hand you should use to wipe yourself with after defecating and which one to use when eating, whether it is acceptable or not to kiss a woman when she is menstruating, whether to wash one's hands again after touching the robe of a non-muslim before prayers (there are actually two answers to that depending on whether your hand was wet or not), and so on. Muslims to this day ask these questions, seek answers for them, and fear the consequences of not following them properly. Such a sad waste of time and resources.

In fact, one can lead a completely normal life without ever learning these irrelevant minor details, probably because they were originally intended for a society that existed centuries ago. One would certainly be regarded with scorn today if he took a few stones and some sand with him to the toilet. So, Islam is NOT a universal religion for all times no matter what Muslims say, neither is Christianity or Judaism by the way. Islam does not have the answers for many things which is why Muslim clerics over the last century were speechless about modern technology and scientific discoveries. Eighty years ago in Iraq it was considered blasphemy to say that rain was originally steam and some people were actually killed for doing so. Mullahs struggled hard to prevent people from sending their children to primary schools or to teach women to read and write. Every new and strange device was considered 'evil' and a work of the devil. Telegraphy, telephones, radios, cameras, televisions. In Saudi Arabia people went to the local telegraph office to ask them where they are hiding the Jinn that brings them news from the other side of the kingdom. They were incredulous to the fact that a message would travel in seconds a distance that took many days or months on camel back.

Muslim clerics had to try to reconcile their old knowledge and understanding of scriptures with present day situations. It isn't easy to apply 7th century teachings on every aspect of life to the 21st century. Some things had to go and compromise was needed. The process is still ongoing. The problem is that even though clerics have compromised in these minor details they still haven't touched major issues. Furthemore, we have groups that refuse to compromise even in small commonsense issues. They have come to be known as Salafis (Salafiya). Salaf means ancestor or forefather. Salafis call for a return to the old glorious days of the Prophet and his companions, with all the baggage that goes with that idea, basically a 7th century desert lifestlye.

When Islamic clerics today say "This isn't the real Islam." or "Islam is a religion of compassion and peace." one should ask them which actual Islam are they referring to? The Islam of Sunni subsects of Hanafiya, Malikiya, Shafi'iya, and Hanbaliya? The Islam of Shia subsects of Imamiya, Zaidiya, Ismaeliya, Allawiya, Nasseriya, and Darziya? The Islam of Sufiya? The Islam of Wahhabiya? Of Salafiya? Of Kharijiya? Which and whose interpretation of Islam? That of Bin Laden? That of Qardhawi? Of Sha'rawi? Of Sayyed Qutb? Of Khomeini? Of Sadr? Of Sistani? There is no consensus whatosever on any verse of the Quran despite 14 centuries of exegesis and debate, because 'only Allah knows the hidden explanation.'

Any sect of the above can give you a different interpretation and can justify whatever actions they carry out. Each sect claims it is the 'chosen one' and that only its version of Islam is the right one, some go as far as labelling followers of other sects 'infidels' and justifies slaughtering them. A follower of any of the above believes that they are where they are today after much critical thought and evaluation of evidence when in fact it can only be explained by blind faith and heredity. If I was born a Hindu then I would definitely think that I am right and that others are wrong, infidels if you wish. If I was born in Mecca before Muhammed I would definitely be praising Hubel for the rest of my life. If I was born a heathen in the jungles of Congo I would definitely scorn missionaries that would try to convert me. It looks like it is going to take centuries for Muslims to realise that NO religion is superior to another, and that NO one adheres to a specific religion because it is the 'right' one. So if we would just stop killing and taking revenge on each other in the name of religion and move on we would not be where we are today.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Open message to the 'Iraqi resistance'

Mohammed Bashar Al-Faidhy, spokesman of the Association of Muslim Scholars, addressed the 'Iraqi resistance' in an open message at a press conference broadcast by the Arab satellite channels yesterday. He stressed the point that this was the first time for the association to openly address the 'resistance'.

He started by reiterating the association's stand of supporting armed resistance against occupation forces. He said it is a legitimate right for any occupied people according to divine laws. He added that the association welcomes the peace talks between the Iraqi government and local leaders in Fallujah, Ramadi and Sammara BUT that does not imply recognition for the Iraqi interim government, and as long as the negotiations do not provide cover for the foreign presence in Iraq they have the association's blessings.

He then proceeded to the message, excerpts below:

"To our brothers in the Islamic Army of Iraq. We wish to inform you that we totally understand the extreme rage that is boiling in your hearts regarding the French decision to ban the Hijab in their schools, and we share you your dissapointment. We officially condemned the French decision at the time... However, killing the two hostages without considering the grave consequences of such an act would be harmful to our cause and would isolate us from our international support... Our goal is to besiege the Americans politically in every spot of the world and this act is not serving that goal... You can see how the agents of the occupation are already using this incident against us... It is our duty as scholars to point out to our brothers what is wrong and what is right... France as an anti-occupation country has been helpful to our cause... You might say that the French stance is not an altruistic one and that they have their own political interests that caused them to disagree with the Americans, and I am not going to say that is not true but it is also our goal to turn them against each other to serve our cause so France has a strategic importance for us... Killing the two hostages is also not helpful to the 6 million Muslims in France... I beseech you to reconsider this and to release the two hostages and to promise us not to commit any act that would harm our cause in the future... We also hope that this development would permit the French government to reconsider their decision to ban the Hijab... When we become a free country Inshallah we will pursue this goal by diplomatic means."

Basically, he is saying: My dear children, it is true that they are infidels, but we should turn the infidels against each other whenever we have the opportunity. Do not kill these two infidels, maybe another time when no one is looking.

When asked about the 12 Nepalese hostages that were slaughtered lately by Jaish Ansar Al-Islam, he said that the association had already stated its opinion earlier; "The 12 agents were fooled to come to Iraq to serve the occupation forces... They were clearly intending to work as mercenaries in the various security companies that are operating in Iraq... We do not condone the murder of the hostages."

Actually this contradicts the association's earlier statement yesterday on Al-Arabia by Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, a member of the advisory council of the association. Abdul-Jabbar did not demonstrate any regret for the barbaric murder of the hostages and he mentioned that the case of the Nepalese was a 'completely different situation than that of the French journalists.' He added that Iraqis are suffering from unemployment so any foreigners intending to work in Iraq were unwelcome by Iraqis.

The group that murdered the Nepalese civilians stated on the Internet that it had carried out 'the laws of Allah' in killing the 'infidel Buddhists who came to Iraq in order to serve Christians and Jews.'

***

The Association of Muslim Scholars is a self-appointed body that was formed a few months after the war by Sunni clerics who lost their governmental positions with the fall of the former regime.

Sunni Imams and clerics had to be approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs if they ever intended to preach in mosques. They had to use sermons that were provided beforehand by the goverment... or the Mukhabarat. Muthanna Harith Al-Dhari, the son of the general secretary of the associaion is actually rumoured to be a former Mukhabarat employee. His great grandfather Dhari Al-Mahmoud was the Sheikh of the Zoba' tribe in the Fallujah and Abu Ghraib areas and was a major player in the 1920 Iraqi insurrection against the British occupation.

Unlike Shia clerics, Sunni clerics do not study for decades in religious seminaries. All it takes to be a Sunni Imam is to graduate from a 4 years Sharia college. For centuries it has been the traditional role of Sunni clerics to support the rulers and to provide them legitimacy, Shia clerics on the other hand have always been known to be dissidents and distrustful toward rulers.
Ideologically, the Shia believe that there will never be a 'just' ruler until the reappearance of the Mahdi, which is the reason Shi'ite clerics keep out of politics as much as possible and turn to religious and spiritual matters, with a few notable exceptions. The Sunni position is that an 'unjust' ruler is preferred over chaos or disunity, or 'an unjust Muslim is better than a just infidel.'

However, the Shia doctrine of Wilayyet Al-Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), adopted by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, basically contends that the Marji'iya should rule on behalf of the absent Imam (Al-Mahdi) until the day he appears again, challenging their rule would be akin to disobeying Imam Al-Mahdi. This ideology was (ab)used by clerics at the time of Al-Mahdi's disappearance around the ninth century, it was clearly a clever invention by the clerics for them to assume power themselves. It was dropped eventually until Khomeini came to the scene.

Similarly, Sunni clerics over the centuries have defended the 'divine rights' of the successive Muslim Caliphs, Sultans and rulers, especially under the Ottoman Caliphate. They would declare Jihad whenever they had a chance. This continued until Mustafa Kamal abolished the Caliphate in the early twenties of the last century. Afterwards, Sunni clerics were divided over the rulers that came to rule the now independent parts of the empire, and since then there has been no distinct Sunni Marji'iya that can claim to speak for all Sunnis. Some follow the Mufti of the Azhar in Cairo, some follow the Mufti of Mecca, and so on.

In Iraq, the former regime used Sunni clerics in whatever way it saw fit. They were paid governmental employees and would readily issue a fatwa for Saddam Hussein to bomb Mecca if he wanted. When he wrote the Quran in his own blood there were scores of clerics who said it was 'okay', although Islam clearly states that blood is najis. If there was ever a dissident cleric they would at least be 'removed'. Some chose to leave Iraq (such as Sheikh Ahmed Al-Kubaisi). They had to mention his name as the 'leader of the Islamic umma' at least once during Friday prayers. When the late Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr (Muqtada's father) refused to pray for him at Friday prayers in Kufa he was conveniently assassinated in 1999 and Friday prayers for the Shia were prohibited afterwards. There were smaller Shi'ite clerics that would support the regime but they were scorned by the mass of Shia, and since Shi'ite clerics depend on their followers for their livelihood and not on the government it has always been that way.

The Association of Muslim Scholars and a handful of other similar Sunni groups were formed from the remnants of the mentioned clerics and Imams who preached for the government. They have limited support from Iraqi Sunnis even though they claim otherwise. Like Al-Sadr, most of these groups have refused to join the political process unless the occupation ends, most of them support armed resistance and some even went far as to justify beheadings, the assassinations of Iraqi figures and other barbaric acts. It is obvious that they have lost dearly from the fall of the dictatorship and they are aware that they have no place in a democratic system since they have no true support.

On this and that

Nothing much has changed in Basrah during the last two weeks, or so it seems to me. I had anticipated some trouble on the road from Baghdad (like on my last return trip) so I opted for a bus ride. I hate it when I have to do that, but buses are usually safer, they look neutral to all sides. Bandits aren't interested in them, Iraqi police and National Guards rarely bother to stop and search them, Al-Mahdi don't suspect anything from them, and both American and British forces usually let them pass without trouble.

I took the Baghdad-Kut-Nasiriya-Basrah route since news from Ammara haven't been very good lately. Unlike other cities in the south, Ammara can totally be considered a 'Sadrist' city. Governmental employees have not been going to work since the start of the crisis in Najaf. Al-Mahdi have checkpoints on the streets and are free to come and go unharrassed by Iraqi police or the small British force in town.

There was a huge plume of black smoke south of Nasiriya, as we got closer it turned out to be from an oil pipeline. Another act of sabotage. I counted two more of these while we were going east on the Nasiriya-Basrah expressway. Sadr's office in Basrah recently denied any responsibility for the attacks on pipelines.

Sadr's people here have been making small trouble every now and then, and a week ago they took to the streets and placed road blocks preventing people from heading to work in the morning. Sadr's representative in Basrah recently stated that he was not obliged to follow the cease fire of Najaf and that Al-Mahdi would continue to attack the British in the Basrah governorate. There were minor clashes a couple of days ago and the British base in Tuwaissa which is close to Sadr's office is targeted with mortars almost every night.

My area is peaceful though. I've been moving around and going to work daily without any problems so far. We still don't have any anaesthetics or antibiotics yet so it's a drag to be at the clinic. There is another Measles immunisation campaign next week and I'm going to be on one of the teams. We should visit nearby villages and go from house to house to ensure all children between 6-12 are immunised. It's going to be exhaustive in this heat but I need the change.

***

Basrawis are relieved at the resolution of the Najaf crisis. People here say that the streets were crowded with people who received Sistani and that it was a huge event. Many followed him to Najaf.

I wasn't very happy to realise that it took another cleric to end the crisis, but there is no doubt that this stunt added to the action of the last month have politically destroyed Al-Sadr among the Shia and that the Marji'iya have assumed control again. The clear cut declaration of the four senior Shia clerics of Najaf that they are against armed resistance means that Sadr has lost any legitimacy with his former claims that he was behind the Marji'iya in his actions and that they supported his movement. I am dissapointed that it took all this destruction for them to issue such a statement but I am guessing that it was meant to be this late. The old wizards act in strange ways.

One of the resident doctors here was with family at Najaf and he witnessed most of the recent developments. He comes from a family of Hawza scholars over there so his information was interesting. He said that he personally saw Muqtada's signature and signet on the Hawza statement. The clerics must have put some significant pressure on the spoiled child.

He showed us some revealing photos that he took with his Nokia mobile phone. I begged him to lend me the pictures but we don't have a damn USB socket on the computer here. I'll try to get them somehow.

He showed us pictures of empty beer cans strewn all over the old cemetery and in the garbage around the shrine. Our cook who had also been in Najaf last week also spoke of beer cans and drugs that were left by Al-Mahdi but I was dubious until I saw the photos myself. Another interesting photo was that of a brick barrier built in front of the shrine by Al-Mahdi facing the Tussi street. There was a large hole in the wall of the shrine behind it which Al-Mahdi probably used to fire from. I haven't seen this on any of the Arab channels. He also showed us photos that clearly prove most of the destruction around the shrine was caused by amateurish militiamen with RPG's, since the direction of fire was from the shrine. Also, most of the Iraqi National Guards who fought in Najaf were Kurds, but Najafis aren't complaining about that fact.


He talked about the time when the treasury of the shrine was opened by Al-Mahdi. Ali Smaisim, Sadr's aide who was reportedly caught with artifacts from the shrine by IP and was mysteriously released, made a phone call to Sayyed Ali Al-Sabzawari (son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abdul-A'la Al-Sabzawari) asking him to do something because armed men were trying to loot the treasury. "Aren't they your people?" Sabzawari asked him. "Yes but I have no control over them, they are threatening to kill me if I try to stop them" Smaisim responded.

He also described Ahmed Al-Shaibani's departure from the shrine after Sistani returned to Najaf. Shaibani refused at first to leave the shrine but after he was surrounded by Sistani's follwers he tried to leave in dignity. I saw him leaving the shrine on Al-Jazeera at the time, but what Al-Jazeera did not show, according to the doctor, was the way Shaibani was hit with flying slippers and shoes from angry Najafis afterwards on the streets. Our friend said that he was almost torn to pieces by the mob but Sistani's aides intervened and allowed him to pass safely to another part of town.

Bodies of mutilated and executed policemen were found in Sadr's 'legal court', also the bodies of 4 women who were seriously disfigured. Our friend said that Abdul-Sattar Al-Bahadili, who was Sadr's former representative in Basrah (the one who called for kidnappings of British female soldiers), was in charge of the court. He ordered summary executions and beat people with a rubber truncheon when they disobeyed his orders.

I will try to get the photos and post them here.